The history involving the Indian National Army (INA) under Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose has been fascinating not just for the Bengalees, but for all those Indians who don’t suffer from parochial mindset. Ravi Shankar Etteth’s recent novel The Gold of Their Regrets isn’t about the history of the INA, but it touches the peripheries of that valiant phase of India’s freedom struggle.
Beginning with Netaji’s reported last flight in August of 1945 before his mysterious disappearance, Etteth cobbles history with an imaginary cache of Nazi regime’s gold and the murder of few fictional characters who had betrayed the INA Commander and his fierce bodyguard Bezbaruah to usurp the gold and later lead their lives in free India. The combination of history, myth and fiction keeps the reader going.
The novel sees the murders by an unknown assassin whose identity is initially kept a secret but is gradually revealed. So, is the novel a mystery or a thriller, I ask the author. “It’s a human story,” Etteth says, affirming that he is “not a structured writer”. “I don’t define a fiction as this and that,” he adds. How does he balance between realism and imagination then? “It’s all of them combined,” Etteth replies. “All my experiences come into play along with my imaginative self,” he says, adding, “I have the plot in the mind when I begin to write. But as it goes on, it seems that someone else takes over and the story evolves.”
But, surely Etteth had a story in his mind and for that he not only read the history of the INA thoroughly, but also travelled to all the places he has set the novel in — from Kashmir to Kerala, and the jungles of Burma that were once the theatres of battles between the INA and the British forces. “It took me about a year to do all the research,” he says. “I made sure that despite being a fiction, all the historical events mentioned and the places described, remain authentic.” Having said that, Etteth admits that the “gold part in the story is not correct”.
In the novel, Etteth brings back the characters of Jay Samorin who is an investigator, and his lover Anna Khan who has been a feared ‘terrorist hunter’ and police officer. Together, they try to track the murderer and in the process the readers get to know about the martial art kalari, bit of South and Central Asia’s history, the sinister plots of militants in Kashmir and the role of Indians who fought for Mussolini under the banner of Battaglione Azad Hindoustan. With these, Etteth creates the character of Tulsi who has been living through the ages and passes on the strength of qui — the essence of life force — a concept that Etteth claims to have existed in China and even in India. “Tulsi isn’t a fantasy. She is just another lady who inspires others and intervenes for the good cause,” the writer explains. “But, I will leave it at that,” he says.
Like Tusli, who the writer defines as “strong”, the characters of Samorin, Anna and the murderer are “symbols of strength” too. Adding flavour to the actions of these people are the marked elements of purity and morality. “But frankly, I didn’t write to offer a deep or hidden meaning. And I also did not want to make any political statement,” he explains. I wonder why then the apology that he has sought in the Author’s Note, in case he has offended anyone with the references of the INA. “There’s nothing offensive I know, still to be on the safe side, I made it clear that it’s just a work of fiction and not a statement on any one,” Etteth explains.
The story sees Samorin and Anna parting ways. Why couldn’t they stay together, I ask. “Well, I got bored with their relationship,” Etteth says with a smile. “Moreover, Samorin was unfaithful to Anna, so I thought it will be better,” he adds.
So, Samorin and Anna will not be around for sometime till Etteth decides to bring them back again. In the meantime, we can wait for his next novel that revolves round “an unfinished Quaran and the wonderful art of calligraphy”.